My own Dad died about thirty years ago, so this letter is to you—you and all the other dads out there, doing your best to do the right thing by your children, and sometimes getting it right.
I’ve been at the Dad game for over forty years now, so I’ve learned a few things through my successes and failures. I’ve also been a grandfather for about twenty years, but that’s an entirely different ball game.
Being a grandfather is easy, by the way. Just showing up is more than half the battle. Then sit back and enjoy the adulation. If you’re not a grandfather yet, just wait. It’s pretty sweet.
But being the Dad isn’t always fun and games. You have a lot of people to keep happy. Your wife, for one. Your boss at work, for another.
As for your kids, you really want to keep them happy too, but it’s not always easy. Your children are told every day of their lives that it’s their divine right to have stuff. Lots of stuff.
May I offer a suggestion? Don’t give in. I’m sure you’ve already figured out that half the junk they want is, in fact, junk. So skip the toy equivalent of Twinkies. Give them low-end, low tech stuff that forces them to think, create, and interact—and doesn’t involve killing people on a video screen.
But mostly, give them your time. Happy children are built by playing Chutes and Ladders with Daddy. Some of my most enduring childhood memories involve my Dad reading to me, his arm around my shoulder. I don’t remember a single book, but I remember that reading was a good thing, and I remember that sitting comfortably nestled against my father was a very good thing.
When they turn into teenagers, good luck. My wife and I raised several children, so I’ve seen all types of teenagers at close range. Some rebel more than others, and that’s just the way it is. But I also learned that no matter how much they complain about how you’re holding them back and stifling their dreams, they don’t want to completely sever the cords with you even if they think they do at the time. Never let an argument with a teenager go too far.
Have principles and stick to them. If you abandon your principles, what’s left for your family to build on?
Making all this work is an extraordinarily difficult job. You have so many pressures. As you move forward in your career the demands on your time will increase. Sometimes I felt like I was being drawn and quartered by the competing demands of work, family, and church. I was so busy doing things for everyone else I often thought I was losing…me.
If you haven’t felt that way yet, just wait. If that’s where you are now, I can only offer sympathy, along with some reminders of stuff you know, but may be in danger of temporarily forgetting.
First, the sacrifices, the frustrations, the fear of getting it completely wrong, the feeling that your life has been dropped into a food blender, it’s all worth it. It’s life—the real kind, not the endless indulgence you see on the screen. This is what you signed on for, Dad, to build a home and raise a family. It’s true that Dad-hood can get turbulent at times, but the worst thing, the absolutely worst thing you can do is to sub yourself out of the game. When Dad quits, everyone dies a little.
If you’re in the thick of it right now, just know that the turbulence will eventually settle down. Your children will become adults, just like you did, and they’ll have children of their own. This will serve them right. In the meantime, you’ll all gain some perspective. Dust settles.
Back at the beginning of this column I said that when you’re a grandfather, just showing up is more than half the battle. Come to think of it, that’s the way it works for dads too. So thanks for reading this, but I know you’ll want to get back to your family. Now’s the time.